THE BLOG

Can't Forget About the Present as We Look to Future

Jan 30, 2011 | Updated May 25, 2011

Viewing President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address through the prism of the spectator sport that our contemporary politics has become, I was quite pleased by his performance.

I agree with those who've already stated that he struck the right tone. I must confess, however, I'm not certain what others really mean beyond the manner in which the president delivered the address.

It clearly was not a combative or divisive speech; and the superlatives by those who compared it to speeches by former Presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were spot on.

The president deftly discussed the level of our current political discourse, but ended on the note that America does "big things." It was reminiscent of Lincoln's appeal in his first inaugural address to the "better angels or our nature."

But is this current time really America's "Sputnik moment," as the president declared?

In his desire to create a sense of urgency for America to look to the future, the president sought to galvanize the nation around a single vision by using a metaphor from a time when the United States was losing the race to space with the Soviet Union and ostensibly the Cold War.

It's challenging to have a call to arms about the future when the present gruesomely reminds us that the nation is $14 trillion in debt and that Democrats and Republicans are engaging in an unholy alliance, content to look at only roughly 10 percent of the federal budget as the ubiquitous source for the spending cuts that supposedly will lead to surplus and solvency.

In addition to the dangling questions raised about Social Security and Medicare, the defense budget is flying under the radar, methodically making its way toward the trillion-dollar mark annually.

It's hard to be stimulated by the future when unduly bogged down by the present. The current 9.1 unemployment rate is an average. If you live in, say, California or Florida, you long for the days of a 9.1 unemployment rate.

The current unemployment rate in those states is hovering around 12.5 and 12.0 respectively. And that does not include those who have relinquished any hope in the existing job market of securing employment.

I applaud the president's call for 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, along with his calls to improve education. But the president offered nary a word to those who listened to the speech while their homes remain underwater.

According to Equifax, Nevada has the highest concentration of homes experiencing negative equity, with 67 percent of its mortgage properties underwater. By that ratio, only one-third of homeowners in Nevada could hear the president's words as they were intended.

But Nevada is hardly alone. The other top four states are Arizona (49 percent of homes underwater), Florida (46 percent), Michigan (38 percent), and California (32 percent) -- the latter three states Obama carried during the 2008 presidential election.

Not everyone whose home is underwater used his or her residence as an ATM during the good times. There are many hardworking individuals who could have used reassurance from the president that their present condition is not lost on him as he challenges us to reach for the future.

If the banks can be bailed out with taxpayer dollars, why is little being done to help the taxpayers who are at risk of losing their homes? Are they not also too big to fail?

Not only did the president fail to mention the housing crisis as if the nation has successfully weathered that storm, neither did his Republican counterparts in their responses to his State of the Union address.

For all of the discussion about the future, our elected leadership continues to be unwilling or unable to confront the challenges of the present that lay just beneath the multiple standing ovations and bipartisan photo-ops of members from different political parties sitting together.

If the president is serious about the "Sputnik moment," then it will require that more of our elected leadership embrace Kennedy's classical definition of liberalism, individuals who look ahead and not behind, those who welcome new ideas without rigid reactions, and those who care about the welfare of all the people, breaking through the stalemate of suspicions.

And that would include that any discussions about the future must not forget those stuck in a tenuous present.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his Web site byronspeaks.com